The arrow whistled as it scythed though the damp and bitter morning air. It flew gracefully and purposefully, shot with precision, before imbedding itself into its intended target. Wide-eyed with shock, the intruder let out a small grunt as the pain seared through him. Clutching his chest, the broad man fell to his knees before slumping forward lifelessly onto the frozen ground. His last breaths came in ragged pained gasps as the last moments of his meaningless life slipped away.
On surveying closely the surrounding trees, it seemed as though the dense forest would offer no more threats. An uncomfortable silence followed as the 2nd Company went about cleaning their weapons and hiding the dead bodies. Not a bird sang nor insect chirped, not even the wind blew. The stillness was eerie at best.
“I think that’s the last of them, Captain.” The voice was soft and sweet, familiar and playfully mocking. Harren Kara turned his head, eyebrows raised: he was always amazed at how Ylessa could turn not only his mood, but a whole situation from bad to pleasant in but one word. He guessed that was why he loved her. Even in a place such as this, just looking at her made him want to break out into a grin. And he would have done, were he not surrounded by all of his soldiers. Soldiers being a rather large understatement, they were, in fact, more akin to minor deities: undefeated in combat, their skill unmatched. They showed no mercy towards those unlucky enough to be their enemies; few ever survived an encounter with the widely renowned 2nd Company. They struck fear into the hearts of the bravest men and made sane men lose their minds as they waited to die.
Yet, even though each warrior – collected from the farthest reaches of Irn – bore several jagged scars, their bodies laying testament to the trials of so many years of combat, there stood Ylessa.
The contrast was divine.
Her long brown hair cascaded beautifully down over her shapely figure, doing well to complement her other striking features: her soft red lips, smooth velvet skin and, most of all, her entrancing dark brown eyes. Harren loved nothing more than to just gaze deeply into her unflinching yet kind gaze, so alive with life. He let them draw him in until he was able to completely lose himself and forget about all the troubles that surrounded his everyday life. She was his saviour in a world gone mad with chaos.
“Why thank you, Lieutenant,” he replied. With a coy smile he winked at her, causing Ylessa to smile warmly back in spite of the early morning chill.
The moment was interrupted as the 2nd Company began to gather round after having finishing the usual tasks, making it look as though the battle – fleeting as it was – had never happened. This confused the enemy; confusion such as this could be a vital weapon in war. Out of all the members of the Company that stood in the clearing, the smallest woman there took a confident step forwards. As she stood, hands clasped firmly behind her back, Harren noticed that she was spattered with blood that was not by any means her own. Maybe she didn’t notice… More likely she just simply didn’t care. Harren knew not to judge anyone by looks shortly after meeting both Ylessa and the woman: though innocent enough, both were deadly when the opportunity came about.
The woman’s name was Klessia, and Harren had never seen anyone move so fast. Her matted grey hair seemed to have a life of its own, sustaining a rather large volume permanently as it stuck out at every angle. It was unusual for a woman in Irn, even one such as her, to look such a… mess. Harren never dared to say anything: he knew not how she would react, though she was known to be a bit on the fiery side. However there was something else about Klessia that made her unique: she was a true Salmarian. In a time almost forgotten, the Salmarian Wastelands had been a vibrant jungle, filled with thick foliage and a thriving population. The humid lands did not play host to a tribe of humans, however – for those living hidden under the densely-clumped canopies were feral creatures of ruthless tenacity, their physical capabilities a threat to any unfortunate enough to become lost in their lands. Klessia was a direct descendant of the original inhabitants of Salmaria and, though her build seemed to be nothing more than that of a tiny woman’s, she had strength and agility beyond that which was natural to others. Her frightening eyes bore an orange colour more vivid than the dusk sun, identifying problems before even the best scouts could began to focus on something they deemed to be suspicious. Her remarkable reflexes helped her move like a spirit through the battlefield, dodging sure killing blows with an effortless grace that left the average soldier either staring in awe, or shaking in fear – she was feared unlike, perhaps, anyone else in the whole of Irn. She was different – unique.
But there was one thing that Harren just could not ignore.
Salmarians had tails.
The long, fur-covered tail swished to and fro freely, as if it too were surveying the scenery as Klessia waited patiently. Maybe it depicted her mood, or maybe it helped her balance… again, no one dared to ask her. It was a commonly accepted fact among the company, that should Klessia be a bit more compromising – or just generally friendly – then a lot more would be known about her species. Similarly, it was also accepted that, seeing as Salmarians were incredibly rare and hard to find, that very little would ever be known about them.
If Harren could no longer take her penetrating and scrutinising hawk-like glare, it would be at her tail that he often found himself directing his full attention. Now, those eyes were focused on him as she waited for her Captain to acknowledge her, the tip of one of her fangs poking out from under her top lip.
Harren found it annoying that no one but Ylessa would talk to him unless he asked for them to first. It was merely part of a very ancient form of military discipline, and a discipline, like all the rest, that every member of the 2nd Company stuck to as if their lives depended on it. Sometimes, they did and, in the end, Harren was very grateful for their composure: it was this that made them such great warriors. The hours of training a day, other people simply wouldn’t be able to cope under the physical and mental strain. No, the 2nd Company were the elite – they were unstoppable. The Captain had watched almost every one of his warriors tear through enemy ranks, each to be respected in their own right. Klessia had earned the name Kyera Mortor meaning The Wind of Death in an ancient tongue. Harren understood such links, he had seen her gliding through enemy soldiers when outnumbered greatly, the enemy simply unable to land a blow as she swept past landing lethal strikes one after the other… Sometimes, Harren wondered if she could kill the wind itself.
Without so much as a nod, she started to voice any unseen happenings that she deemed important enough for the Captain. “We have searched the surroundings, two more Zarian soldiers were found fleeing the area. They were killed – none survived, Captain.” The finality and certainty in her voice was a chilling reminder of just how brutally efficient the 2nd Company were. Harren sighed, even though she would cut out his tongue for saying so, she could actually be quite an attractive woman, apart from her unnerving aura of masculinity.
“Then let us head back to camp and report what we have found, it worries me that the Zarian forces have gotten this close and been – up to now – undetected.”
“Besides,” interrupted Ylessa, her eyes tracing the bare, haunting trees surrounding them, “I don’t like it here: it’s too quiet.” Her voice came almost as a whisper, as if she were afraid of waking the trees’ long dead spirits. Klessia opened her mouth, probably with a retort poised dangerously on the end of her sharp tongue, but she caught Harren’s warning out of the corner of her eye and thought better of it. Simply nodding her respect to the officers, she started the long hike back to camp with a disappointed flick of her mischievous tail.
With one wave of his hand, Harren ordered the rest of the 2nd Company back to the main camp. Immediately, they started forming a protective ring around Harren and Ylessa who, by now, were oblivious to the extreme precautions taken wherever they went. Harren guessed he was grateful, it meant he could relax a bit. Though, just watching them slip so silently in and out of the lifeless branches with deadly yet quiet precision – sometimes almost completely disappearing as they ducked and dived through still shadows – made Harren uneasy too. They really were the perfect killers: silent yet deadly; ever calm yet brutal and merciless.
Harren longed to hold Ylessa close, but the company would not welcome such a sign of weakness. Although they preferred to leave the giving of orders to the promising new recruits, the experienced warriors still expected their officers to live by the same strict rules and fight with equal valour and intelligence, if not quite their skill. Following orders kept each individual alert and well disciplined. It also provided them with the chance to show tactical knowledge by correcting any foolish strategies made by those in command. It was rare that any officer in the 2nd Company had the ability to match any of the traits of those under them. Simply, the positions of Captain and Lieutenant were iconic; respected nonetheless, but of no real purpose. Still, that meant by no means that Harren was but a normal soldier. He was still far above the average, his skill in combat superior to almost any person of such a young age as he.
However, even though the position was unparalleled for danger, it made Harren one of the most famous men in all of Irn. In the Karan Empire, he rivalled even the Emperor, Trenos – Harren’s elder brother – for popularity. Most knew his face or at least his name, and those who didn’t recognised his uniform immediately: the bold II on his right shoulder identified him as one of the most powerful men alive. Standard army uniform, a blue undershirt sealed down with heavy chainmail, didn’t apply to the 2nd Company. A sturdy shield in one hand bearing the emblem of the Karan Empire: a soaring golden eagle, and a standard short sword in the other saw most through their battles and skirmishes. But there were no rules here, a soldier’s equipment was his own and wielded through preference. Each member became a nightmare told to children, their weapons being different enabled each to stand out in a crowd. Some preferred armour, others simple, lightweight cloth clothing. Others preferred a shield; some even wielded two weapons at once.
But although being plunged into a new world brought many changes, Harren still struggled to comprehend one thing; that was that no matter how busy someone was they always had the time to stop and salute as the company passed by. More than once had Harren been invited to join close groups of friends as they ate and drank, sure to tell an epic story should the Captain of the legendary 2nd Company tell one first.
Often Harren politely refused: he didn’t fancy his chances of surviving the night if he accepted every ale thrust his way. Plus, by the time he finally returned to camp, Harren usually wanted nothing more than to curl up and go to bed.